When the White Sox inked Yasmani Grandal to a then-record free-agent deal before the calendar even flipped from 2019 to 2020, they assumed they had their catcher for their next championship team in place, a finishing piece to go along with all their on-the-rise youngsters to form a lineup that would be feared across baseball.
That contract is just about over, and things didn’t go according to plan, not for the White Sox — who won one playoff game in 2020 and one in 2021 before stumbling to back-to-back massively disappointing campaigns — or Grandal, who spent the majority of that contract battling one injury or another, his physical ability to handle a No. 1 catcher’s workload a question as often as it wasn’t.
And so with Grandal’s tenure coming to an end, the White Sox are once again on the hunt for the backstop for their next championship squad.
That hunt led to some interesting places over the last week, when a pair of deadline deals brought two young catching prospects into the organization, not only addressing a positional need but importing options to be the long-term solution there.
Certainly, Edgar Quero is a long-term project, a highly rated but just 20-year-old catcher who can be counted among the best prospects in the sport. But Grandal’s contract is up at the end of this season, and expecting Quero to be ready for Opening Day next year is a little overzealous.
But another deal landed Korey Lee, recently a top-five prospect in the Astros’ organization, and it’s Lee who can be described as not just a candidate to be the long-term answer at catcher for the White Sox but the near-term answer, too.
Already on the brink of the big leagues before being traded away by Houston — he played in a dozen major league games last year — he’s likely to arrive on the South Side soon, if the forceful language of team brass is any indication. Asked last weekend if Lee could help the White Sox at the major league level this season, Pedro Grifol had a definitive, one-word answer.
“Yes,” he said without elaborating.
The day Lee was acquired, Hahn, too, discussed the possibility of Lee playing at the big league level once he’s past rehabbing an oblique injury, rehab work that’s already underway at Triple-A Charlotte.
Indeed, an infusion of catching help is necessary for the White Sox, who in addition to losing Grandal at the end of the season have spent the first two-thirds of the campaign watching Seby Zavala struggle mightily at the plate. Though Zavala has received positive reviews for his work with the pitching staff, he was batting just .152 heading into Wednesday night’s game. Carlos Pérez had a big fan in former manager Tony La Russa but has seen little action as an emergency fill-in the last two seasons.
The future needed to be different, and now it is. With Lee, the White Sox will get a relatively immediate look at what that future could be.
Lee, a former college roommate of Andrew Vaughn — Hahn even sought Vaughn’s input before finalizing the deal with the Astros — was described by the first baseman as “a really good catcher,” and hearing Lee talk, you can tell he definitely eats, sleeps and breathes the position.
“You’re the captain back there, you’re the quarterback. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. That’s what I’ve always wanted to be,” Lee said during a Wednesday media session. “Everyone’s eyes are on you. Even when (the game is) on TV, everyone’s looking at the catcher. It’s a pretty good job to do. Obviously it’s really, really hard, but if I played any other position, I don’t think I would be so successful at it.
“I’m going to play my game. I’m going to do what I do really, really well. I’m going to connect with the pitching staff. I’m going to be a catcher. That’s the main priority at the big league level, being a catcher, learning how to communicate, learning how to call a game.”
Lee shouted out his brief time in the majors last year as an opportunity to learn from Martín Maldonado, a mainstay behind the plate for the Astros during their reign as one of baseball’s winningest franchises. Maldonado, by the way, just caught his third career no-hitter Tuesday night; only two catchers in baseball history have been behind the plate for four.
“I got to be around Martín Maldonado. I got to learn from him. I got to see how he managed the pitching staff at that end, learned how he communicated with pitchers, and it taught me a lot,” Lee said. “I’m going to carry that further into my career and make it my way, but he taught me how to be a professional catcher. Over there in Houston, they knew how to win, and I kind of want to bring that over to the White Sox.”
Lee becoming the kind of the guy who appears in 54 playoff games, as Maldonado has, would be the dream scenario for the White Sox, but they’ll surely settle for improvement from what they’ve had the last couple seasons. As mentioned, Zavala’s offensive numbers have not been good this year. Grandal had a miserable season at the plate in 2022, but despite plenty of positive offensive moments, his defense and especially his durability have left much to be desired.
Lee owns a .283 batting average this season. In 104 games at Triple-A last season, he hit 25 home runs.
As for the game-calling and defensive side of things?
“I want to continue to refine the game-calling aspect,” he said. “Being a professional, being young, connecting with older pitchers, not a lot of people see it, a 25-year-old trying to talk to a 32-year-old that’s been in the league for a little bit. Communication is something I’m always looking to get better at.
“Something I do really, really well is throwing really well. I’m going to continue to do that and just have high energy on the field. That correlates to the game. When the catcher has high energy, the game gets going a little bit more.”
It’s all likely to be music to White Sox fans’ ears after they’ve seen their team’s backstops struggle behind the plate at times over the last couple seasons. Unexpectedly shifting again, however briefly, to a stage where the White Sox will be seeing what they have for the future over the next couple months, Lee will perhaps be given the biggest opportunity of any young player in the organization.
Hahn said Tuesday that competing for a playoff spot in 2024 is “viable,” and Lee getting some run before time runs out this season could prove rather helpful in that department, potentially setting him up for the everyday job by Opening Day next year.